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'They're finally here'

Navy veteran recalls surprise of Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941


by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor Bob Westerberg was stationed on the USS Nevada during the attack.As Bob Westerberg considered military options after high school in 1940, he had a gut feeling he was better suited for the U.S. Navy than the Army.

“I didn’t feel like marching around,” the Phoenix native admits. “In the Navy, you had three squares (meals) a day. In the Army, you were all over the place. You didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. They said, ‘Join the Navy and see the world.’ I was ready to see the world.”

If Westerberg, who was stationed on the USS Nevada in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, knew what awaited him and his fellow crew members the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the idea of marching around a field on an empty stomach might’ve seemed far more appealing.

Westerberg, 91, a former Aloha resident now residing in Newberg, recently shared stories of Pearl Harbor on Veterans Day at St. Stephen's Academy, where his daughter, Karen Alston, is a teacher. On Tuesday afternoon, just a few days before the 72nd anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Westerberg revisited the South Beaverton school to reflect further about what President Frankln D. Roosevelt called a “date which will live in infamy.”

Westerberg, as he recalls, was “slurping peaches” on a lazy Sunday morning in the Nevada’s gunnery office when he heard the “man your battle stations” call just before 8 a.m. Unbeknownst to the chief petty Naval officer, the base was under a surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

“We hadn’t heard the explosions where we were,” he explains.

Clues that this was not just another drill, however, started to mount up.

“People were moving pretty fast in the hallway. I put the rest of my skivvy shirt on, my white pants and my hat on and ran out to get to the battle stations,” he says.

Seeing an incoming plane and hearing “machine guns chattering” from his ship, Westerberg didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of what was happening until he saw the “big orange balls” on the plane. Hearkening back to Japanese submarines detected around the U.S. fleet weeks earlier during sea maneuvers, Westerberg realized the world as he knew it just changed.

“You flashed back immediately (to) those submarines we’d been tracking all the time out there, and all the reports we get. ‘Wow, you know! It’s happened. They’re finally here.’”

Westerberg hustled into action in his role as a main battery sound-powered telephone talker for his gunnery officer, repeating the officer’s orders to the gun captains through a primitive telephone.

“He gave me the orders. I repeated them in the sound-powered telephone,” he says. “They’re like a telephone, really, an old-time communication device. I would tell the secondary battery what to do: ‘Cease fire! Commence fire!’”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Pearl Harbor veteran, retired Chief Petty Officer Bob Westerberg, U.S. Navy, talks about his experience on that fateful day.

Fighting fear

After the Nevada, which suffered damage early in the attack from a torpedo strike, undocked to escape its vulnerable position, things only got worse. Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed the ship so badly it was beached to keep it from sinking and blocking the main channel. Once the U.S. officially entered Word War II by declaring war on Japan, access out of the harbor would be crucial.

Doing what he was trained to do as best he could, Westerberg doesn’t hesitate to call the day — when 57 of his fellow crew members perished — the most terrifying of his life.

“Without a doubt, it was,” he says. “It was terrifying for so many reasons. Because of the fear of not knowing what’s going on. The fear of saying the Japanese have landed. That meant if we got through the ships there, we’d end up fighting the Japanese Marines as they came in. There were just so many things.

“You look out there and the water is all ablaze, and guys swimming around out there and drowning. Black smoke is pouring out from everything.”

After the Nevada underwent major repairs at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., and placed back into service, the Nevada served as a fire-support ship in infamous amphibious assaults including the Normandy landings and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

In the waning days of World War II, Westerberg recalls providing bombardment shells for Vice Admiral William Halsey, Jr.’s aircraft carrier task force and “island hopping.”

“We provided air cover until the end of the war,” he says.by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A newspaper clip shows World War II veteran Chief Petty Officer Bob Westerberg, U.S. Navy, with his mother after he returned home from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Doing the right thing

Discharged from the Navy in 1946 after the Allied Powers, Westerberg embarked on a varied career that encompassed accounting, accounting machine sales, hospital management and work in the biomedical and computer fields. In addition to Phoenix, his career pursuits took him and his wife, Jean, to Portland, Eastern Oregon, St. Paul and Aloha, among other locales.

Jean, his wife of 66 years, passed away on Nov. 20.

Reflecting on his post-war years, Westerberg admits he and his fellow servicemen harbored a healthy amount of resentment toward the Japanese in the years following the war.

“There was anger, absolutely,” he admits. “We stopped calling them ‘Japs.’ All the name calling and these things turned around, but there was a lot of nasty feeling toward (Japanese people) at the time.

“You get over that somewhere along the line,” he adds. “I’m Christian. I believe in forgiveness.”

Westerberg enjoyed flying to Washington, D.C., in mid-October as part of the Honor Flight of Oregon to see the World War II monument. Otherwise, he doesn’t go out of his way to celebrate his military service or recognize Pearl Harbor Day.

“I did what I was capable of doing, and God let me do it,” he says of the experience. “I didn’t do anything heroic. I did what I was told to do — or I’d get a kick in the rear.”



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